Mike Macdonald doesn't make changes just to create a new approach. He makes changes with a specific purpose.
That sounded like the blueprint he will use, speaking as the Ravens' new defensive coordinator at his introductory press conference. Macdonald has a vision for Baltimore's defense, a unit that took a step back in 2021, ranking 25th overall in the NFL and last against the pass.
"Ultimately, our goal is not even Top 10, right?," Macdonald said. "You want to be No. 1. So, that's the standard."
Macdonald does not want to replicate what happened last year, so some schematic changes are forthcoming, and with free agency and the draft looming, some personnel changes are inevitable.
However, Macdonald was a member of Baltimore's organization for seven years before his one season as Michigan's defensive coordinator. He helped build the current defensive system that was overhauled in 2018, when Macdonald was linebackers coach under former defensive coordinator Wink Martindale.
The Ravens won't be overhauling their defensive scheme now that Macdonald is back. However, here are areas where Macdonald may make his most significant adjustments.
Coaching to Players' Strengths
At Michigan, Aiden Hutchinson blossomed into one of the country's most dominant defensive players after Macdonald moved him from down lineman to standup defensive end.
In Baltimore, how Macdonald utilizes versatile defensive players like outside linebackers Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser, inside linebacker Patrick Queen and cornerback Marlon Humphrey will be interesting. Macdonald is already very familiar with many Ravens after his previous stint in Baltimore, and if he thinks their skillsets should be used a little differently than Martindale, this is his chance to show that.
"It's just the willingness to just try to keep putting your players in the best position so they can succeed," Macdonald said. "If you let that kind of guide your decision process, you end up at a pretty decent spot.
"The first thing you want is a cohesive unit. You want everybody to have each other's backs. There's a certain style it takes to play like a Raven. You want it to be multiple. You want it to be flexible and adaptable. It needs to be complimentary, light enough when you can adjust to certain things and simple for the players so they can go play the way you expect them to go play."
More Prudence With Blitzing
At Michigan, Macdonald took over for former Wolverines defensive coordinator Don Brown, who was nicknamed "Dr. Blitz". The Ravens were also consistently among the league leaders in blitzing with Martindale.
Macdonald certainly utilized the blitz at Michigan, but not as frequently as Brown or Martindale. Macdonald preferred to keep quarterbacks off balance by showing the blitz less frequently and mixing up zone and man-to-man coverage in the secondary. When the Ravens blitzed last season, they often they didn't get a sack or quarterback pressure and left themselves vulnerable against the pass.
Both Head Coach John Harbaugh and Macdonald believe in being aggressive defensively, but Ravens cornerbacks may not be left on an island as frequently.
"The aggressiveness – absolutely – is going to carry over, but I think you've got to look through the lens [of], 'What does aggressiveness actually mean?,'" Macdonald said. "It's about keeping the offense off-balance and where they're not really believing what they're seeing on a down-to-down basis. So, a lot of times, that will come with the schemed-up pressure – that'll happen. A lot of times it could be a fake pressure, it could look like this coverage and play like another one. You're changing the stress points of the zones and things like that and just trying to create doubt at all times. You want to be the one pushing the envelope, rather than the other way around."
Fewer Coverage Mistakes
The Ravens had costly mistakes in coverage last season that led to receivers being left wide open for big plays. Michigan wasn't hurt nearly as much by big plays last season as it had been in the past. One of the first things Macdonald mentioned about his defensive philosophy was the importance of communication, something he said he learned from Martindale.
"That's definitely going to carry over," Macdonald said. "If you can go over the situation with the guys, let them know what you're going to call in certain situations, and they're on the same page, you find the execution is better."
Harbaugh was smiling often while sitting next to Macdonald at the podium. The standards are high for Baltimore's defense, and Harbaugh views Macdonald as the right person to help the Ravens return to being the kind of defensive team they strive to be.
"You saw it operate at Michigan, and we're planning on taking that to another level as we keep building it," Harbaugh said. "[He] made a bold move last year. Sometimes, it's tough to leave a comfortable situation and go step out and take a chance. He was willing to do that, bet on himself, went out and had great success. The things that you see in Mike, it's a great combination of intelligence, common sense, people skills, it's the really unique, hard to find balance of confidence and humility."